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14 December 2020
Prof Abdon Atangana
Prof Abdon Atangana is known for his work in developing a new fractional operator used to model real-world problems arising in the fields of science, technology, and engineering. He was recently awarded the TWAS Mohammad A. Hamdan Award by The World Academy of Sciences.

Prof Abdon Atangana, Professor of Applied Mathematics in the Institute for Groundwater Studies at the University of the Free State (UFS), was awarded the TWAS Mohammad A. Hamdan Award by The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries.

It is the first time that the TWAS Mohammad A. Hamdan Award was bestowed. According to a statement issued by TWAS, this award is given for outstanding mathematical work carried out by a scientist working and living in Africa or the Arab region. It states that the award can be given for work in pure mathematics, applied mathematics, probability, or statistics. Prof Atangana received the award for his contribution to fractal mathematics and partial differential equations.

Making a difference in society

He is known for his research in developing a new fractional operator, the Atangana-Baleanu operator, which is used to model real-world problems. With this operator, he not only describes the rate at which something will change, but also account for disrupting factors that will help to produce better projections.

His work can be applied to make complicated predictions in the fields of science, technology, and engineering. His models can, for instance, help to predict the spread of infectious diseases among people in a settlement, forecasting the number of people who will be infected each day, the number of people who will recover, and the number of people who will die.

Prof Atangana’s models can also help to advise people drilling for water by predicting how groundwater is flowing in a complex geological formation. These are only two examples of how his work can be applied to make a difference in society.

The award from TWAS is the third prestigious commendation he has received in the past month. He was recently named as one of the top 1% scientists on the global Clarivate Web of Science list. His name also appeared on a global list of leading scientists published by Stanford University in the United States. The list is the result of a study published in PLOS Biology, a peer-reviewed open-access journal.

World’s most accomplished scientists

Honours awarded by TWAS and its partners are among the most prestigious for research in the developing world. They recognise outstanding achievements and contributions to science and acknowledge the best work by scientists from the global South.

TWAS, founded in 1983 by a group of scientists under the leadership of Pakistani physicist and Nobel laureate, Abdus Salam, believes that developing nations – by growing strength in science and engineering – will be able to address challenges such as hunger, disease, and poverty, through their knowledge and skills.

TWAS is represented in 100 countries, and of the more than a thousand elected fellows, 14 are Nobel laureates. Eighty-four percent of these fellows are from developing nations. TWAS fellows are also some of the world’s most accomplished scientists.

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Small things matter

 Description: Prof Felicity Burt  Tags: Prof Felicity Burt

Prof Felicity Burt (right) and Dr Dominique Goedhals
from the Department of Medical Microbiology and
Virology at the University of the Free State.
Photo: Anja Aucamp

The newly established virology section at the University of the Free State (UFS) boasts world class expertise. Not only are they one of just five laboratories in the country tasked with specialised HIV testing, but current research generates publications and subsidised funding.

The driving force behind this initiative is passionate and dedicated people who invest long hours into vital research. One such person is Prof Felicity Burt, who eloquently guides her students while making impressive progress within her own field of interest: vector-borne and zoonotic diseases. Prof Burt was recently awarded a research chair (2016-2020) to, among other areas, investigate medically significant vector-borne and zoonotic viruses currently circulating.

That means that her research focus is mainly on viruses transmitted by mosquitoes and ticks, and viruses transmitted from animals to humans. “Yes,” she laughs, “I catch mosquitoes and check them for viruses.”

Becoming familiar with different viruses
As if big screen moments like Outbreak and Contagion did not create enough virus paranoia, the world was recently bombarded by real world Ebola and Zika outbreaks. But awareness, Prof Burt says, is not a bad thing. “Years ago, when people heard that I did Ebola research, they got that distant look in their eyes, and changed the subject. One outbreak later, backed by many media reports, and Ebola is almost a household name. The same goes for the recent Zika virus outbreak in South America.”

The more familiar people become with these types of viruses, the better, Prof Burt feels. However, getting the right message across is not always that easy. The Zika virus outbreak, for example, was a very large outbreak and therefore presented large numbers of affected people. Generally, not everyone infected with an arbovirus will necessarily present with symptoms. But because vector-borne viruses can spread to new areas, surveillance and awareness is important. Here in Bloemfontein, Prof Burt and her team are establishing surveillance programmes.

Gaining knowledge and preventative measures
So, next time you get all wound up about a “biological disaster”, rest assured that competent people like Prof Burt and her colleagues continuously scan the environment to gain knowledge and develop preventive measures should any risks be looming. For example, developing next-generation vaccines that are very effective, but without risk – since they are not built on the virus itself, but only on the part of the virus that will induce an immune response.

Currently, Prof Burt is also looking into the relationship between the Sindbis virus and arthritis. It is clear that we can expect many exciting findings from the UFS’s new virology unit.

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